By Rabbi Lee Buckman
A few days back was an unofficial national holiday in Israel … or at least for the majority of parents it was a holiday. It was the first day of school, and parents greeted the return to structure with boundless joy and relief. That’s because many children simply have nothing productive to do during the “chofesh hagadol,” and parents are exhausted from negotiating with their children to take some initiative and do something, anything.
As an educator who just spent his first summer in Israel as an immigrant, I asked parents about their child’s summer activities. Some teens, I learned, work at a day camp or go on a tiyul for a few days with their youth movement. If they’re a leader in their youth movement, they use part of their summer to prepare for the three-day hike. When that’s over, some find a short-term job or volunteer.
However, most Israeli children spend the day at home by themselves on their favorite electronic device with a periodic visit to the shopping mall with friends. And more teens than we’d like to admit go to the beach and experiment with all the things that an unsupervised teenager can do.
It’s no wonder that the Ministry of Education in Israel has been trying to shorten summer vacation. Politicians and educators – most of whom are parents themselves – view the months of July and August as an educational Achilles Heel.
I asked an Israeli principal why parents don’t send their child to overnight camp, and she said, “That’s an American thing to do. We love our children too much and would never send them away to overnight camp for more than a few days.”
It’s an interesting reaction because my own parents love me too, and as an expression of that love, they gave me one of the most precious, formative, and long-lasting gifts ever: six consecutive summers at Camp Ramah, followed by Ramah Seminar in Israel, and four years as a staff member.
At camp, my Jewish identity was solidified. I learned to sing, dance, play softball and clean a cabin – all in Hebrew. I experienced an intentional Jewish community. I met people who, although they didn’t realize it at the time, were powerful role models who inspired me to go into the rabbinate and education and exposed me to books and experiences that influenced my decision to make aliyah. I am still best friends with my bunkmate from 44 years ago, and one of my closest friends in Israel is someone who was on staff with me 40 years ago.
Returning to camp as a counselor and then Rosh Eidah, I learned how to manage and motivate a staff and children and speak in front of an audience. I learned how to think on my feet and improvise and be more deliberate about my decisions. These were life skills that helped me be a more serious college student, a more appealing candidate for a job, and a more resilient adult.
It’s now time to bring Jewish overnight camps to Israel. The camping model would be different in terms of length, program content, and funding (overnight camp is otherwise unaffordable for most Israelis).
However, the potential impact of overnight camps would be the same.
Overnight camping can do things that schools cannot do. Learning in camp is experiential and is generally more active, personal, and powerful than school learning. As well, camps provide a framework to commemorate, celebrate, and discuss holidays and events that take place during the summertime.
Most important, a Jewish summer camp can expose children to peers whom they would otherwise never meet. Israeli teens from the “periphery” can mix with children from the “center.” Dati, secular, and traditional kids, some of whom have Ethiopian, Moroccan, or Russian parents can share the summer together. Israeli children can meet peers from another country who want to spend a summer in Israel and make new friends. At a specialty camp, children interested, for example, in marine biology, robotics, the arts, entrepreneurship, or forensics can encounter like-minded teens who are too few in number at their local school.
As Israeli Ministries, Diaspora and Israeli foundations, federations, and funders seek to improve the education of Israeli children, they ought to expand their portfolio of educational interests to include Jewish overnight camping. At camp, children will learn, do and experience things that they don’t have the opportunity to do in school; and camping builds a model community where Israeli children of diverse backgrounds can discover what unites them: common interests, a shared future, Israeli culture and arts, Jewish history and heroes, a love of the Land and a rich Hebrew language. I am confident that after a few weeks at overnight camp, Israeli children won’t return home thinking their parents don’t love them and Israeli parents will no longer wish away the summer.
Rabbi Lee Buckman lives and works in Jerusalem. He is the Executive Director of JEDvision, which advises and provides services for Jewish educational organizations and institutions globally. Prior to making aliyah, he served as Head of School at three institutions: TanenbaumCHAT, a Jewish day high school in Toronto that serves nearly 900 students in grades 9-12; the Greenfield Hebrew Academy, an infant to 8th grade Orthodox community day school in Atlanta, Georgia; and the Frankel Jewish Academy, a pluralistic Jewish day high school that he helped establish in West Bloomfield, MI.